America's gun violence has changed the way we parent

Amy Joyce, Caitlin Gibson, Elizabeth Chang
Washington Post

Parents do what they can to keep their children safe from all sorts of dangers. We lock them in car seats, make them wear helmets. We teach them how to cross a street safely. But many feel powerless when it comes to gun violence. They don't know if their teen might get caught up in a fight that involves a gun instead of a fist. They don't know if their child might go to first grade and lose their life to a semiautomatic weapon of war.

In 2020 and 2021, guns killed more children than car accidents, formerly the leading cause of death among young people, where Black children suffered the most, with a 39 percent jump in gun deaths in 2020. More than 348,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Between January 2022 and January 2023, there were more than 600 mass shootings.

Families leave a reunification site in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, March 27, 2023 after several children were killed in a shooting at Covenant School in Nashville. The suspect is dead after a confrontation with police.

This generation of parents is grappling with guns in a way previous generations did not. We asked caregivers: How has America's gun violence affected the way you parent? We heard from parents who imagine the worst and parents who have lived it, and what, if anything they are doing about it.

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We never talked about shootings in schools because we didn't want to scare our boys (bad enough that they had drills at school), but when we considered moving abroad because remote work allowed it, keeping them safe was first on our list. On the last day of school before our impending move, I reached out to turn off the radio when news of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting was coming on, but decided to instead park the car and be honest with them. They are 10 and 14, and unhappy about leaving friends behind. I had to establish priorities and make sure they understood it wasn't a frivolous decision.

- Patricia Alves Panagides, 51, formerly of El Dorado Hills, Calif., has moved with her boys and husband to Cyprus, near her father-in-law. (Submitted to the Washington Post.)

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Our daughter was shot and wounded at her high school in 2019.

We moved to this community for our daughter to go to free public high school. We had not a fear in the world, though we weren't naive. We grieved with the country when it happened to other people. But your brain can't let you think the worst all the time.

[The morning of the shooting] I was able to get ahold of my husband, and we got to the front of the school just as they wheeled Mia out. She went by helicopter to the trauma center. It wasn't until many hours later that I found out she was shot in the lower abdomen. She was shot by a kid she never met, who brought his dad's .45-caliber ghost gun to school.

It's something that I relive consistently. I was recently waiting to pick Mia up from choir practice and an ambulance was turning down the street. Your heart starts to pound, you look at people who walk down the street with a duffel bag. You're on high alert. It really just changes the way you do things in everyday life.

Mia [now 18 years old] has some great days where I think there's that little glimmer of "before," but we've seen the innocence drain from her. Especially because friends weren't as lucky as us and lost their lives. What has helped her is the advocacy she has done to honor her friends. [Her best friend, Dominic Blackwell, was killed.]

Mia will soon be going to college. She has big dreams and applied to big schools. There's that anxiety I know every child faces [when applying to college], but there's a little bit of extra our daughter has: What are the guns laws there? Have they had a shooting before? She fears the day she sees someone walking around with a gun on their hip.

We have a 9-year-old son. That's prime sleepover age. [Before a play date] we ask if there are guns, if they are secured and locked up. Our son knows what happened to his sister, but he's still a 9-year-old little boy who I'm fairly certain would pick something up and play with it. But those are the things we do uncomfortably now.

Before this happened, I worried about Mia's future. I worried about if she's going to be happy, if she's going to get a good job and get married and how many grandkids I'm going to have. Now if I think to the future, it's "Is she going to continue to have pain? Where's she going to work? What's she going to do if there's a fire drill at work and she has a PTSD flashback? Will she have trouble having kids because of where her scar tissue is?" These are the things that cross my mind now. I guess the way I imagine their futures now has been altered.

It's about more than just health and happiness. There's more at stake because of the things she's lost.

- Tiffany Tretta, Santa Clarita, Calif. (As told to Amy Joyce.)

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Anytime the kids have received a gift that involves shooting, I'm hesitant to allow them to use it, and they also know and say "Momma, we won't use this, right?" At this point I'm not interested in having them use anything related to guns. I have Black children. So the first thing is I don't want them around anything that looks like a gun or thinking about that. The idea that a Black child will be blamed for anything to do with a gun even if they didn't have anything to do with it is definitely a possibility. How is it something that someone can just go and buy and use? I have a lot of fear around that and what would make a person want to use it. Even if for self-defense. I know people do it, but I just don't have a comfort level around guns.

- Garlia Cornelia Jones, metro New York. (As told to Amy Joyce.)

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Less than a year ago, my best friend was murdered by her husband. He shot her with both of her kids in the home. She hated the guns in their home but respected that he had them in a safe. I talked to her constantly, she promised she was okay and that he wouldn't hurt her. After he shot my friend, he also destroyed any semblance of safety we had in our neighborhood.

I am now constantly scared. I don't want to be in big crowds. We bought our youngest an iPhone at age 11 because I am so concerned about her ability to contact us if anything ever happened at her school or if she is out and possibly separated from us. We have talked about where the exits are in their schools, what they do if there is ever a shooting and told them to not be heroes. I hate saying that, but I can't live without my kids. The Uvalde shooting was less than two hours away. I have Life360 on their phones; we have discussed if they are in an active-shooter situation, they are to text me "911." I can locate their phones and get help to them. I tell them to put their phone on "do not disturb," and I will not call, but text. We have game plans for different types of situations depending on the incident. I have first-aid kits with QuikClot packages and a way to stop blood loss packed in their backpacks. I am now looking into backpacks' bulletproof shields. I HATE that I'm trying to do everything to keep them safe. I have anxiety, I have nightmares. I live in Texas, so it is even worse. Going to the movies, going to the mall, a concert, parade - really just about anywhere is no longer safe. I am volunteering to remove [Republican Gov. Greg] Abbott and other elected officials. I am at school board meetings arguing for safety. I don't know what else to do other than move and become a hermit. My daughter told me that she has a spot in her classes that she finds right away. That she can make herself very small to keep herself safe. I am just done.

- Name withheld, Austin. (Submitted to the Washington Post.)

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What I want people to know about Joe is that he was precocious, bright, funny, gregarious, a magnet of the room, any room. He was a good lacrosse player, a good basketball player, politically minded, civic minded, looking forward to his first vote in a presidential election. He canvassed for [Barack] Obama, door to door. He was a bright light of the community. He was 20 in 2015, a junior at Hampton University.

He went with friends to a party in Norfolk, right outside the gates of Old Dominion University. Joe and his friends were leaving the party, and there was a group of young adults that lived in this particular area. As Joe and his friends walked toward this group, they bumped each other and got into an argument. Joe's friend was in a heightened argument, and Joe said to him, "It's not worth it, let's go," and then the crowd attacked him. Joe fought back. Apparently it was really becoming a real fisticuffs, and he was getting the better of the person fighting him, and then the tragedy happened [he was shot and killed]. I strongly believe Joe never believed in his wildest imagination that a weapon was involved.

Now, I just want people to fiercely understand that it can happen to anybody. And I say that because I was certainly one of those people who thought it couldn't happen to them. I thought: I have two wonderful, lovely, young men in college, they come from not only college-educated parents but college-educated grandparents, all four of them, and that is not only rare in the Black community, that's rare in any community.

My older son, Alec, when he graduated college in 2015, he wanted to leave home but he stayed with me for about two years, until 2017. He lived at home for me. And then he got an apartment in Northwest D.C., but I was always coming over. Those GPS apps you can get on your phone? This young adult man, God bless him, he allowed me to track him on GPS for about three years, because I was so nervous, and he allowed that because of everything we were going through. My son is 29 now, and he went out to play poker with some guy friends the other night, and I'm literally texting him at midnight - are you okay? Are you all right? I don't want him to go out at night, I don't want him to go to functions, but that fear is not what I wanted for either of them. Joe's death has drastically affected my parenting, and my thinking about parenting. My advice for parents is to talk to their kids, talk to them specifically about gun violence. And never take anything for granted. Never.

- Kimberly DeLaine Bose, Alexandria, Va. (As told to Caitlin Gibson.)

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I make sure to always say "I love you" when I drop them off at school, just in case. I stay aware of exit paths everywhere I go. I don't take my children to big outdoor parades or festivals anymore. I've had conversations with my children about what to do if they ever see a gun (NEVER touch it and tell a grown-up immediately). Most importantly though, I've become active with Moms Demand Action. My children ask me to do everything I can to help end gun violence, and I'm doing my best from my corner of the country.

- Patricia Boe, Santa Ana, Calif. (Submitted to the Washington Post.)

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I had these biases that I had escaped gun violence in my community. Then I got a phone call I will never forget. A detective said: "Your child has been involved in a homicide." I just dropped to my knees and said "Oh, my God. Do I need a black dress or a lawyer." I finally heard my son's voice and was immediately in disbelief. Not my kid.

He had been getting in trouble. He went from an honors kid who started hanging with the wrong crowd, to skipping school. I could see it spiraling. Did I ever think there would be loss of life? No. But I had this awareness that the streets have power over them and parents are fighting against that. That's where I could afford to live. My son told me, "You were a great mother. But you don't know who I have to be outside."

I asked myself, "Was I not present as much as I should have been? Did I miss the signs?" It just spiraled so quickly. We're not your typical run of the mill drug-ridden family. I have a master's degree and so does my mother. We don't go to jail!

I questioned myself upon his reentry. How do you parent a kid after something like this? He was still a teenager when he came home. I was cripplingly worried. We've had some very candid conversations and many tears. I can't imagine an adult having to wear something like that. He was only 15 when this happened. He was gone for 18 months. It changed our life. He's since graduated from high school and is now a chef and a father. It was a complete 180.

You think the adults in the neighborhood share in a collective protection of our kids. [But] they put a gun in his hands.

Honestly, I thought I was better than someone who would be in this situation. I've learned that a lot of times, parents don't know what to do or how to show up. Guess what? I was there, too, and I had to be humbled in that. Long gone are the days where you scrap it out in the middle of the street. I don't know at what point we got here. We're fighting against layers of gun violence in these communities.

It's heightened even more because we are in a city. We are under-resourced, under, under, under.

- Kesha Fitzhugh, Washington, D.C. She and her son have spoken out about their story and the impacts of gun violence within the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services at the Anchored In Strength Parent Support Group. (As told to Amy Joyce.)

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The other morning, there was a gunshot right across from the elementary school drop-off. They rushed us into the building, and my 5 1/2-year-old son didn't notice. He was sad that we couldn't buy a chocolate bar for the fundraiser. He was really upset, but not about the gunshot.

Two and a half years ago, we were hanging out on the porch, and there were gunshots two houses down from us where two people were murdered in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. My son was napping when the police came, and he was 3, so we didn't talk to him about it.

Being gentrifiers, I recognize that gun violence is there. I feel on one hand like I'm trying not to make a lot of decisions around it. Like, do you want to live in fear? My childhood was not shaped by fear. Some of it is a conscious choice of being, "Okay, these are the realities of the neighborhood that we live in and the many dynamics that make up those realities, which are really complicated."

But I do increasingly think - with shootings in the neighborhood and mass shootings I'm reading about other places - that feels like it's closing in all around us. I think parenting these days is this experience where the things that felt really out there feel like they're coming closer. And I don't know if I have good strategies yet to deal with that. I try to tell myself that the way I was raised and the way that I was parented don't necessarily apply to the realities now, and I think that helps me to let go a little bit of how I think things should be. But if we were to talk in a year and there were more things that happened, maybe we would make some different choices. I don't feel like I have an unending supply of perspective around this.

I have a friend who's in his 50s; his kids are in their early 20s. And he says things like, "Yeah, I remember all that." And I really fight to not say back to him, "I don't think you really understand like what parenting is for us." I really feel for everyone who is parenting right now.

- Gracy Obuchowicz, Washington, D.C. (As told to Elizabeth Chang.)